BRASILIA – Brazil's military staged an unusual convoy of troops and armored vehicles through the capital Tuesday — an event that was announced only a day before and that coincided with a scheduled vote in Congress on one of President Jair Bolsonaro's key proposals.
Hours later, Congress’ lower house did not approve the constitutional reform sought by Bolsonaro to require printed receipts from some electronic ballot boxes that the president alleges are prone to fraud. His allies needed 308 votes and got only 229. The opposition, which had hoped to get an overwhelming majority against the president, fell short, getting 218 votes.
Earlier in the day, dozens of vehicles and hundreds of soldiers paraded past the presidential palace as Bolsonaro looked on, then continued past the congressional building and Defense Ministry.
The navy issued a statement saying the convoy had been planned long before the congressional vote. But it was announced only on Monday and critics said it looked like an attempt to intimidate opponents of a president who has often praised the country's past military dictatorship.
Military parades in the capital are usually limited to independence day events. Tuesday's procession was described as a ceremonial invitation for Bolsonaro to attend annual navy exercises that are held in a town outside the capital. The army and air force also are participating for the first time.
The parade upset some lawmakers. Omar Aziz, the president of a Senate probe into the government’s COVID-19 pandemic response, said the parade was “a clear attempt to intimidate lawmakers and opponents. He (Bolsonaro) imagines he is showing strength, but he is showing a president weakened by investigations.”
Critics allege that Bolsonaro, who trails rivals in early opinion polls, is trying to sow doubt among his passionate supporters about the 2022 election results, setting the stage for potential conflicts similar to those spawned by former U.S. President Donald Trump's allegations of fraud in the United States.
Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, a lawmaker, on Monday reinforced the family's close association with Trump by posting on social media what appeared to be a recent photo of himself standing alongside the former U.S. leader and saying he (Eduardo) is “on the side of men with unblemished reputations and the moral authority to walk down the street, head held high.”
Tuesday's military procession shows Bolsonaro is either a poor judge of the political climate or is knowingly straining against democratic norms, said Kai Kenkel, a specialist on Brazil's military at Rio de Janeiro's Pontifical Catholic University.
“We still need to know for sure whether there is a connection between Bolsonaro's agenda and the motivations of the navy to do this, because the navy has been much more careful not to make political statements,” Kenkel told The Associated Press.
Electoral authorities have repeatedly denied any problems with the voting system and Bolsonaro has failed to present proof despite a Supreme Court order to substantiate his allegations.
The president has repeatedly insulted Luis Roberto Barroso, a Supreme Court justice and the electoral court’s president, accusing him of working to benefit former leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has been leading in the polls.
Tuesday's measure is a watered-down version of an initial proposal to adopt printouts at all of the nation’s voting ballot boxes — a bill rejected last week by a congressional committee.
Electoral authorities and even many of Bolsonaro’s political allies oppose the plan, saying it attacks a nonexistent problem and would create opportunity for vote buying.
The call for a vote appeared to be a bid by lower house Speaker Arthur Lira, a Bolsonaro ally, to settle the dispute for good and ease tensions.
On Monday, Lira called the military exercise taking place the same day as the vote a “tragic coincidence.″
“We hope that this subject is finally ended in the lower house,” Lira said after the vote.
Cláudio Couto, a political scientist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, said Tuesday marked the biggest legislative defeat for Bolsonaro.
“The administration is getting more frail in every aspect. It suffers in polls, it is investigated in the Senate inquiry on the COVID-19 pandemic, and the chances that Bolsonaro is not reelected are getting bigger,” Couto said. “By insisting in today's proposal to solve a problem that does not exist, Bolsonaro has made this defeat to be important."
Bolsonaro has repeatedly hammered on the fraud claims to rally supporters and shows no sign of dropping the issue.
“We will do everything for our freedom, for clean, democratic elections and public count of votes," he told backers Saturday at a rally in Santa Catarina state. Any election without that isn’t an election."
He led another rally, a motorcycle convoy, in the capital on Sunday.
“It isn’t just now that there are rumors about fraud in the ballot boxes, but now there’s this proposal and he (Bolsonaro) resolved to go in head first,” said Maria da Silva, a 61-year-old homemaker from Sao Paulo. “I trust him.”
Hours before the tense vote, Bolsonaro had another defeat in Congress. A dictatorship-era national security law, which was frequently used by police against critics of the president, was scrapped by the Senate. The law, which dates from 1983, made it a crime to harm the heads of the three branches of government or expose them to danger.
Juan Gonzalez, the U.S. National Security Council's senior director for the Western Hemisphere, told reporters on Monday that Biden administration officials were “very candid” speaking last week with Bolsonaro about elections, particularly in light of parallels with what has happened in the U.S.
“We were also very direct, expressing great confidence in the ability of the Brazilian institutions to carry out a free and fair election with proper safeguards in place and guard against fraud,” Gonzalez said. “And we stressed the importance of not undermining confidence in that process, especially since there were no signs of fraud in in prior elections.” ___ Mauricio Savarese reported from Sao Paulo. AP journalist Eraldo Peres contributed from Brasilia